In 1990 The New York Times declared the term fast fashion and said it would take less than 15 days for a garment to go from a designer's brain to being sold on the racks. This 15-day journey rapidly turned into a billion-dollar industry offering the latest trends at inexplicably discounted prices. 

The Throw-Away Culture

The idea of selling cheap products with a set lifespan came around in the 1930s during the depression with the hope of giving work to masses of unemployed people while getting the economy moving. The fast fashion industry adopted a similar strategy by using underpaid labor working under inhumane conditions, low-quality materials and engaging in highly problematic environmental practices to create a line of clothing beginning at merely $5.

Social media, advertising and marketing, play a vital role in bringing this culture forward where our favorite actors, influencers, bloggers are seen wearing the latest fashion trends from high-end fashion houses and brands. When fast fashion brands offer the same apparel at a fraction of the price, of course, many of us are jumping at the opportunity. Unlike luxury fashion brands that only target a specific set of audiences, the fast fashion industry has created a sense of fashion that is democratic and accessible to many. Yet, as author Elizabeth Cline brilliantly says, "The thing about cheap fashion is that you often wind up with a closet full of deals rather than a closet full of clothing you'll wear". Because we pay so little for it, we don't value the clothes, and we end up throwing them away or never using them.

Changes in Fast Fashion

As we know the demand for sustainability is on the rise, many companies, including top fast-fashion retailers including Zara and H&M, have started using conscious materials such as recycled polyester and organic cotton. Yet they are only being introduced in addition to their conventional lines, not to mention materials are only a portion of the issues that need to be addressed in the fast fashion supply chain. We can only wonder if fast fashion can blend in with sustainability when the implementation of these changes is derived straight from customer's demand while genuine prioritization of the environment is still a missing piece here.

As the year 2020 is unfolding its chapters, Covid-19 has drastically changed our physical, mental, and social lives. It has brought the world together to fight a pandemic, and somewhere amidst fighting this battle, a change in consumer sentiment and in consumer behavior is taking place and they are not necessarily aligned or changing in the same direction. According to Mckinsey & Co., two-thirds of surveyed consumers state that it has become even more important to limit impacts on climate change, and 88 percent of respondents believe that more attention should be paid to reducing pollution. Additionally, 67 percent consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor. But the financial crisis this pandemic has brought upon us has also resulted in consumer purchasing behavior. Younger consumer segments are willing to buy cheaper versions of products they usually buy—approximately 50 percent of Gen Zers and Millennials in the survey report trading down, resulting in the increased demand for fast fashion. A high demand for fast fashion means this business model will still exist for the foreseeable future, even if demand for sustainable products increases among less price-sensitive consumers.

What the Future Holds 

It is not easy to predict the future of the fast-fashion industry.

Suppose we end up with a hybrid fast yet "responsible" model such as where fast fashion brands produce clothing at the same pace using better quality "sustainable" materials and fair employment. The technology and mechanisms would need to be in place to deal with waste and other issues arising from mass production. Not to mention, with this model, we would not be addressing the fundamental patterns of consumption in our society that we probably shouldn't ignore.

Will enough consumers undergo a shift in consciousness, realizing they no longer want to engage in this behavior of purchasing lots of different clothes for cheap? Will other kinds of sustainable brands and business models eliminate fast fashion? seems unlikely, at least not at the pace needed to deal with the pressing environmental issues. Not to mention, this will create another set of problems, such as leaving many workers in the industry unemployed, which eventually will have to be addressed.

In our view, the fast fashion industry will undergo a combination between a technological and a consciousness revolution, coupled with adequate social and environmental policy. In order to create a sustainable future, we need scientists, entrepreneurs, governments, non-profit organizations, workers and consumers to work together on realistic goals and solutions. If each affected party acts individually other sets of issues will arise, or at least we won’t be able to reach solutions effectively.

By: Ekam Rai


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